Category: Lawn & Garden

Pro Tips: 5 Easy Ways to a Better Lawn

Do you want this year's lawn to be your best ever? Get the greenest, most lush grass on the block with these five mowing tips from the experts at John Deere.

Mowed Lawn

Photo: Shutterstock

A green, good-looking lawn adds serious curb appeal and can even increase a home’s value. Thanks to major improvements in mowers in recent years, maintaining your own lawn is now easier than ever. We reached out to Mike Ballou, product manager at John Deere, to give us some pointers on keeping your yard looking its best.

Not only does a sharp blade keep your mower running efficiently and reduce the amount of time you spend mowing, but it can also keep your lawn looking better. A dull blade can tug on your turf instead of gently trimming it. Take a look at your lawn next time you mow. If the ends of the grass look torn and ragged, it’s time to sharpen up.

To sharpen the blade, you can take it to a professional or go the DIY route. To do it yourself, you’ll need a grinder—but remember: safety first! Make sure your lawn mower can’t start running while you’re working on it. Try pulling the spark plug or blocking the blade to reduce your risk while you remove the blade. When you’re grinding, keep the blade’s original angle intact and aim to get the blade only as sharp as a butter knife—any sharper could damage the blade.

John Deere Mower Give-Away2. JUST A TRIM
Unless you’re building a backyard golf course, don’t cut too much from the top of your grass—one-third off the top is the rule. If you cut too low, you risk damaging the crown of the grass, the structure that keeps your grass growing strong. Another benefit of keeping it high: Taller grass grows more slowly, which means less mowing for you.




Every time you mow, vary the route you take across your lawn. Mowing repeatedly along the same route can cause wear on your lawn, making the grass grow in the same direction and eventually fall flat. Always traveling the same path takes a toll on your mower too, because making the same turns all the time can put unnecessary strain on one side of the mower. So try to take the scenic route next time. If, however, you’re working in a tight space or on a sloping hill, always opt for the safest mowing pattern.

Small yard? A walk-behind mower should be right for you. If, however, your yard is larger than half an acre, a riding mower could make your life easier; it’s also a good bet for a hilly yard. If you have landscaping, trees, or garden paths to maneuver around, you’ll need to take the mower’s turning radius into consideration. If your lawn is dense or coarse, choose a lawn mower with high horsepower.

Take care of the little things to extend the life of your mower. Grease and dirt buildup on a mower engine will make your motor run hotter, so after using the mower, wipe the area clean or spray it down with a hose. Keep the mower clear of old, dried grass clippings to prevent it from getting plugged. Change out the filter and oil regularly. To keep your mower in tip-top shape, store it properly and keep it out of the elements. Never leave gas in your mower over the winter—but come spring, if you left in some gas and the mower doesn’t start up for that first cutting, try draining the gas tank and starting fresh.

Enter Bob Vila’s $5,000 Spring Spectacular today and every day through Monday, March 31st (11:59 EST) for the chance to win a John Deere riding mower and custom garage storage. 

Planning Guide: Backyard Ponds

Building a pond is a great way to add character and serenity to your outdoor environment, but there are some important factors to consider before you jump in with both feet.

garden pond


Just to be clear, the kind of pond we’re referring to doesn’t involve swimming, fishing, or boating. We’re talking about a decorative garden pond for goldfish, koi, or plants—a water feature that will blend into your landscape and create a calming aesthetic experience. There’s nothing more relaxing than the sights, sounds, and even smells of a well-maintained pond, but a pond has to be planned and built correctly in order to function properly and produce the desired effect. You can’t just start digging and then hope it all works out. Here are some important factors to consider before you grab a shovel.

Ideally, a pond should get a good mixture of sun and shade, but you want to achieve this without getting too close to trees. Digging around the root system of a tree can damage it—and it’s a bear of a project. Also keep in mind that you will need to run electricity to the pond for the pump and, depending on how elaborate you want to get, other components such as a filter, skimmer, or lights. This means you might want to locate your pond near your home. Keeping it close to the house gives you the added benefit of being able to enjoy its beauty when you’re indoors.

Backyard Pond


In general, the larger the pond, the more stable it will be for fish and plants, so don’t try to keep it small for the sake of maintenance. Go for the biggest pond that makes sense for the space you have. You can either purchase a prefabricated plastic pond tub, or you can use a pond liner and customize the size and shape of your pond. If you decide to go the custom route, take some string or a garden hose and use it as a line to lay out the shape that you want on the ground. This will enable you to try different designs before you make a final decision.

Be creative—try something other than a circular shape, and consider incorporating elements like a waterfall or stream. Think carefully, however, about placement of any special features. You don’t want to be looking at the back of a waterfall from your porch or window, so determine how any add-ons will affect the shape and orientation of the pond. After you have established the perfect shape and size, use landscaping paint to trace the perimeter.

If you’re going to the effort and expense of creating a pond in your landscape, you’ll want to include a place where you can truly enjoy it, so be sure to incorporate benches or other seating areas—or even a more elaborate structure like a gazebo—into the design. If the pond is large enough, you might even wish to place a small bridge across it. A tall stone or obelisk set in the middle of a pond gives it an exotic atmosphere and provides a focal point for the design.

You don’t necessarily need a complicated plumbing setup. Filters and skimmers are nice but not essential for every application. At the bare minimum, you will need an electric pump to circulate the water—and to feed your waterfall if you plan on having one. A filter may not be necessary; beneficial bacteria that will begin to grow in the pond can act as a natural filter, and there are also a number of plants you can grow that will help keep the water clean. For example, water hyacinths reduce algae by removing certain nutrients from the water. Although it’s certainly possible to create a micro-ecosystem that strikes a natural balance, every application is different and will vary depending on where you live, the number of fish you keep, and the size of your pond. Do your research and make these decisions during the planning phase so you don’t have to tack on a filter and skimmer later. These should be incorporated into the design.

pond fountain


Don’t forget that after you dig the hole for your pond, you will be left with a huge pile of dirt. You have to get rid of it one way or another, so take this into consideration when planning your pond. You may be able to use the dirt to build up an area for a waterfall or some other interesting feature. Also, if you want your pond to look natural and blend into the landscape, you will most likely need rocks for landscaping in and around your new water feature. Determine whether you can acquire them (legally) from nature or if you will need to purchase them. Even if you don’t end up having to pay for them, the time and labor involved in moving rocks can be significant.

We know you’re anxious to grab that shovel, but there’s one more important thing you must do before you break ground: Call 811 and let them know what you are doing. They will send out the appropriate people to make sure that you are not going to hit any underground lines when you dig. This is a free service, so there’s no reason to risk hitting a gas, water, or power line.

The key in planning your pond is to think long-term. If you take your time thinking through all of these factors and considering your options, the result will be something you will cherish for years to come. Resist the temptation to cut corners or start building too soon, because saving that extra day or two isn’t worth it in the long run. Think about it—have you ever heard anyone say, “I know it’s not perfect, but I’m glad I saved a little time three years ago”?

7 Things to Do in Spring for a Healthy, Gorgeous Lawn Year-Round

To create a thriving, beautiful lawn, you need to hit the ground running in the spring. Add these 7 important tasks to your spring to-do list, and you'll have a lush, thick carpet of green come summer.

Spring Lawn Care


At the tail end of the winter season, homeowners face the sometimes daunting but always exciting prospect of readying the lawn for the warmer months ahead. From cleaning to mowing to seeding, proper spring lawn care encompasses a range of responsibilities. All are important. Remember that cutting corners now could mean that at the peak of summer, you’ll be spending your weekends making up for spring lawn care oversights. In other words, it’s in your best interest to act now. Stay on top of the game to ensure healthy and beautiful grass that demands no more of your time than is strictly necessary.



Spring Lawn Care - Dethatching


Dead grass and lawn clippings accumulate and get matted down into thatch, which not only prevents the germination of new grass seed, but also promotes fungus growth and pest infestation. Dethatch the lawn by giving it a good once-over, using either a lawn rake with stiff tines or a special dethatching rake.



Spring Lawn Care - Soil Testing


To grow grass successfully, you need the right soil. Most varieties thrive in conditions that are neither acidic nor alkaline. Methods exist to raise or lower soil pH, but you’ve got to know what you’re dealing with. Purchase a soil test kit for around $10 from your neighborhood garden store, or send a soil sample to your local extension office.



Spring Lawn Care - Cleanup


Part of spring lawn care involves clearing away the ravages of winter. Equipped with your rake and pruning shears, take an exploratory stroll around the property. Look closely for any plants that didn’t survive. Prune damaged or dead branches from trees and bushes, and remove twigs or leaves you find lingering on the grass.



Spring Lawn Care - Aeration


In high-traffic areas, the soil beneath grass gradually becomes compacted and inhospitable to grass roots. Manual or mechanical aeration reverses the damage done. Here, wine cork-size plugs are drawn out of the lawn surface, giving roots room to spread and allowing air, nutrients, and moisture to penetrate the soil.



Spring Lawn Care - Preemergent


Weed control ranks high among spring lawn-care priorities: If you don’t act against weeds now, before they emerge, you’ll spend the summer battling them—and it’s not a fight you’re liable to win. Prevent weeds from even sprouting by applying a pre-emergent herbicide. For an alternative treatment free of harmful chemicals, try cornmeal.



Spring Lawn Care - Seeding


On any bare patches of ground, skip the herbicide and opt instead for grass seed. Be aware, however, that if you’re planting grass in the spring, it’s going to need lots of TLC during the hot summer months—that is, consistent watering and regular weeding—and you’ll most likely have to seed again in the fall.



Spring Lawn Care - Equipment


Before the lawn season gets into full swing, inspect all your outdoor tools, including the mower. If necessary, take the machine in for service or give it a tune-up yourself: change the oil, install new spark plugs, and replace the air filter. Also, make sure to have fuel on hand in preparation for the first grass-cutting of the year.


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: The old adage applies as directly to spring lawn care as it does to so many other pursuits. Indeed, setting off on the right course in spring can help ensure that your grass thrives right through to fall, bolstering that curb appeal you count on it to provide.

How To: Bevel a Fence Post

It may be easier than you thought to bevel fence posts for that new wooden barrier you're planning for the property.

Here’s how to dress up a fence post with a beveled cap. It’s easy to do with a radial arm saw. Set the blade at a 45-degree angle. Before cutting, always protect your eyes with safety goggles. Then make one cut pulling the saw firmly towards you. Rotate the post and make another cut. Proceed the same way with the remaining sides. When you’re finished, you’ll have a perfect 45-degree beveled fence post cap.

For more on outdoor structures, consider:

Fences 101
7 Top Options in Fencing Materials
Recycled Fences: 8 Ways to Put Salvage to Good Use

What Would Bob Do? Removing a Tree Stump

Hire a pro? Do it yourself? Rely on chemicals? There are lots of options for getting rid of an old tree stump. Let Bob walk you through the pros and cons.

How to Remove a Tree Stump


I would like to remove a tree stump that is a couple of feet away from my house. It’s starting to rot, and I’m afraid it will get lots of insects. I’d have a professional crew do the job, but I suspect the stump is too close to the walkway to be pulled out without causing damage. I have a container of commercial stump remover, which contains potassium nitrate. My concern is that rainwater might splash some of the stuff onto my house, potentially causing its frame to rot. What do you think?

Since the tree stump on your property has begun to rot already, my advice is to skip the chemical stump remover. Potassium nitrate-based products are meant to promote the activity of wood-devouring microorganisms. They are busy on your stump to begin with, so why not simply let the rotting process continue?

If you are intent on using the chemical, start by cutting the stump as close to grade as you can. Next, use a drill (outfitted with a 10-inch or longer bit) to drive multiple holes into what remains of the stump. Then fill those holes with the chemical (granular, liquid, or powder), following the manufacturer’s directions.

In a hurry? Hire a pro. You doubt that the stump could be pulled, given its proximity to a walkway, but in fact pulling is only one of many ways to remove a tree stump. In your case, the crew would likely use a grinder. Though powerful, these machines can operate successfully in a tight space. With the stump removal job in experienced hands, all that you would have to do is add new soil and some lime (to counteract the acidity that rotting causes), then plant your petunias.

If you’d rather not pay to have the job done for you, consider renting a small stump grinder (the fees are modest). With these smaller units, however, the major drawback is that you can probably only grind the stump to a level one or two inches below grade. Replanting the area, even with annuals, might prove impossible.

For small- and medium-size stumps, you can always perform manual removal, though of all options, this is by far the most labor intensive. First, dig a trench around the stump, exposing roots as you encounter them, cutting them with a pruning saw, heavy-duty shears, or an axe. Keep digging until you are able to fit a long pry bar under the main root ball. Continue to pry on all sides, exposing and then severing the roots that were hidden at first. Finally, lean the root mass to one side and cut as deeply as you can into the taproot. The stump will gradually break free from the soil. Assuming the stump isn’t huge, you can be done within a few hours.

Pro Tips: The Best Ways to Deal with Snow and Ice

When it comes to ice and snow, the best defense is to be prepared. Here are some expert tips on the tools and equipment—and best use practices—that should keep you safe and sound this winter.

Dealing with Snow and Ice - Shoveling


The severity of this winter has surprised many parts of the country. With more storms on the way, many homeowners are better preparing themselves, stocking the garage with everything necessary to handle snow and ice. These tools are readily available in stores; it’s only a matter of knowing which are essential to own.

For manual snow removal around the house, the experts recommend that you employ a mix of shovels, pushers, scoops, rakes, and scrapers.

“Use a shovel to lift and throw snow that is too deep or heavy to bulldoze using a pusher. A pusher is best for drier, lighter snow that can be efficiently bulldozed off the sidewalk or driveway without the ‘scoop-and-throw’ motion of a shovel,” says Joe Saffron, senior director of marketing at Ames True Temper.

“A roof rake helps clear heavy snow from a rooftop in order to avoid structural damage to your home. Some (like the True Temper telescoping roof rake) allow for quick extension and easy reach, without the need to get out the ladder,” Saffron continues.

“A scraper should be on hand to remove stubborn ice from surfaces. While on the road, you should have a shovel in the trunk of your car to help dig out your tires if you get stuck. Collapsible shovels, like the True Temper Autoboss, are a great option for easy storage.”

When shopping, prioritize safety and ease of use. Test tools before purchasing to be certain they are comfortable and amenable to the techniques you prefer. When shoveling, remember to stay warm and hydrated. Also, try not to push yourself too far beyond the limits of your normal physical activity: “As shoveling is not an everyday task, it is easy to strain muscles and joints when stooping and lifting in ways you do not normally move,” Saffron says. Be kind to your body and “look for ergonomic features, such as multi-point grips, elliptical-shaped and curved handles, and wide-mouth blades.”


Dealing with Snow and Ice - Blowers


Heavier snow calls for heavier equipment. That’s where snow throwers come in. Of course, there are many makes and models from which to choose. If you are shopping for a snow blower, consider a variety of factors—the type of surface you will be clearing (i.e., concrete or gravel), the shape and length of your driveway and/or walkway, and how much snow your geographical area typically receives (as well as what consistency that snow is).

“A single-stage snow thrower like the Troy-Bilt Squall 2100 is best for clearing midsize driveways in areas with snowfalls of six inches or less. And it’s most appropriate for paved surfaces like sidewalks and patios,” says Barbara Roueche, senior manager, marketing communications, MTD Products. “Generally, a single-stage snow thrower is lightweight and easy to maneuver.”

“A two-stage snow thrower like the Troy-Bilt Storm 2840 consists of serrated augers that break up ice and snow. [These models] throw snow quicker and farther than a single-stage thrower,” Roueche continues. “A two-stage thrower is best for clearing large driveways and heavy snowfalls, and its power-driven wheels can handle uneven and steep terrain.”

Whatever snow removal tools match your needs and family budget, be sure to read the owner’s manual so that you understand how to properly and safely operate the equipment.

Finally, once you have managed to clear the snow away, think about investing in a low-tech solution to deal with slippery surfaces: a little bit of salt or sand can help increase traction, making approaches to and exits from your property much more manageable for family and guests.

Bob Vila Radio: Pruning Young Trees

Follow these guidelines when deciding which young tree branches to prune (and which to leave alone).

A good way to help your young tree stay healthy is to prune it wisely. The best time to prune a tree is late winter, just before the leaves emerge, but right now is the time to inspect for dead and damaged branches—it’s easier to spot them now, when the leaves are gone.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON PRUNING YOUNG TREES or read the text below:

Pruning Young Trees


When it’s time to prune, those dead or damaged branches should be the first to go. Make your cut at the branch collar, which is the ridge in the bark that surrounds the branch where it attaches to the trunk; that’s where the tree heals best. Don’t cut into the collar, but be sure to cut just outside it. Don’t leave a stub, where pests and disease can enter and damage the tree.

Next to go should be branches that cross or rub. Cut off the smaller of the pair. Then cut off branches that point downward. As you work, keep an eye on how much of the tree you’ve cut—you don’t want to remove more than 15 or 20 percent in one session. As spring approaches, those branches will bear the green leaves that the tree will need to turn sunlight into food, so you don’t want to take off too many. You can always go back next year and take off a few more.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

How To: Make a Stone Walkway

Make a stone walkway to enhance the curb appeal of your home or to beautify its backyard garden area.

Here are some tips on how to make a stone walkway. After marking the walkway with string, the first step is to lay a foundation of stone dust. When it’s leveled, begin laying in the stones. Once they are in place, tap them tight with a hammer and a piece of scrap wood. Finally, sweep the excess dust into the cracks to prevent shifting and ensure a compact fit.

For more on driveways and walkways, consider:

The Right Path: 10 Wonderful Walkway Designs
Garden Paths: 12 Easy-to-Imitate Stone Walkways
10 DIY Stepping Stones to Enhance Any Garden Walk

Retaining Walls 101

A retaining wall can help you create a terrace or a flat area in a steep yard, or it can simply hold up a sloped bank to prevent soil erosion. Keep it simple and you can even build it yourself.

Building a Retaining Wall - Landscaping


Retaining walls offer aesthetic as well as practical benefits: In addition to beautifying the home, they inhibit soil erosion and provide privacy to outdoor living areas. Retaining walls even boost home value, rewarding homeowners with a favorable return on investment more often than not.

If you are planning to build a retaining wall, you may choose from a wide range of materials. Which material is best for your wall depends on a few variables: your personal style sense, the project budget, and the nuances of the site in question. Homeowners who are building a retaining wall often use one of the following materials.

• Interlocking concrete blocks. Available in many shapes, textures, and colors, interlocking concrete blocks are mortar-free, cost-efficient, and highly durable, offering both fire and water resistance.

• Railroad ties. An inexpensive option, railroad ties have a significant downside: they are clunky to work with, requiring a labor-intensive degree of sawing and drilling.

• Natural stone. This is the most expensive of all—at least initially. Over its very long life span, however, a natural stone retaining wall needs little maintenance.

• Brick. Very durable, brick delivers a refined look, but at a price—the cost of materials is higher than for most other options, and for best results, it’s recommended to hire a professional.

• Cinder block. The primary selling point of cinder block is its low price. Although it’s not very attractive on its own, cinder block can be painted or surfaced in stucco.

• Concrete. Unadorned concrete can look pretty utilitarian, but it can be beautified with paint or even stone veneer. While retaining walls of this type are relatively inexpensive, they can be difficult to repair or remove.

For the average do-it-yourselfer, building a retaining wall is easiest when using masonry blocks that will be stacked no taller than three feet, with no mortar binding the stones or concrete members. Certainly, experienced amateurs are capable of completing more complex masonry installations or of building retaining walls using other materials, but novices with such ambitious goals are encouraged to work with an experienced landscape design contractor.

Start by marking out the site where you intend to build the retaining wall. For this task, use wood stakes and a mason’s line. (For a curved wall, mark instead with a garden hose or spray paint.) Remove all loose debris and plant material, including grass, from the designated area.

Building a Retaining Wall - Tiers


With a shovel, dig a trench to accommodate the bottom of your first masonry row. The trench must go down one inch for every eight inches of planned wall height. So if you are building a retaining wall that is three feet tall, then four and a half inches of the initial masonry course should sit below grade.

Line the back and bottom of the trench with landscape fabric, then set a perforated drain pipe along its length. Add four inches of gravel, leveled and tamped down, followed by one inch of bedding sand.

Up to this point, you’ve been making the base upon which the retaining wall is going to stand. Now it’s time to build the actual wall, one tier a time. Fit the stones or concrete members together as closely as possible. As you finish each row, shovel in gravel as backfill; doing so not only strengthens the wall but also promotes drainage. (Another way to prevent moisture buildup is to add weep holes at the foot of the wall.)

Stagger succeeding courses of masonry so that the wall leans slightly toward the hill against which you are installing the wall. By building the wall on a backwards slant, you counteract the effect of gravity.

Further stabilize the wall by planting flowers and small plants along its top. The roots help hold the soil together, and the vegetation offers the peripheral benefit of blending the retaining wall with its surroundings. Avoid planting trees and bushes close to the masonry, as their migrating roots can easily weaken the wall you worked so hard to erect.

How To: Pour a Concrete Walkway

Make your home more accessible, boosting curb appeal in the process, with a DIY concrete walkway.

Keep these things in mind when pouring a DIY concrete walkway. Set a level frame with one-by-four lumber. Lay plastic on the bottom, so the concrete cures more slowly, resulting in a stronger slab. For a larger area, add steel reinforcing. Spread the concrete evenly, lifting the rebar into the middle. Finish off with a steel trowel or a bull float for a smooth surface.

For more on cement, consider:

9 Easy Concrete DIY Projects
Bob Vila Radio: DIY Concrete
How To: Make a Concrete Walkway